Wagner: Led by Porzingis, Suddenly Streaking Knicks Showing Signs of Growth

As if taking their cue from the cross-town New York Jets, the New York Knicks have so far, defiantly refused to let anyone else’s preconceived opinions define what they’ll be this year.

Like the Jets (3-5) in the NFL, the Knicks (3-3) entered their NBA current season with low expectations and got off to an expected rough start before showing a lot of fight and being more competitive than originally anticipated.

However, where the Knicks have provided an even better lesson for the Jets of late is not in simply battling hard and settling for mere moral victories, but in posting actual wins by finishing off games down the stretch.

Whereas the Jets predictably lost with bad overall efforts in their first two games, before surprisingly winning their next three contest, then leading in very winnable games — only to lose them all in heartbreaking fashion — the Knicks have figured out where they went wrong earlier and how to close strongly while resiliently turning a poor 0-3 start into an impressive three-game winning streak with forward Kristaps Porzingis becoming ever more comfortable in his new role as New York’s leader in its post-Carmelo Anthony era.

How comfortable?

Porzingis’ career-best 38 points on Monday night at Madison Square Garden not only helped the Knicks hold off the Denver Nuggets, 116-110, but either put New York’s 7-foot-3, third-year sensation either in some very elite company or in a class completely by himself.

No longer in Anthony’s shadow, Porzingis has already had two more career games reaching at least 30 points this season than he did over the first two years of his career as Anthony’s primary sidekick.

Not only did Porzingis become the first player in Knick history to start a season scoring at least 30 points five times in the first six games of a season, but the 22-year-old also became the youngest player in NBA history to do the same while joining Toronto’s DeMar DeRozan (who did the same last year) as one of only two NBA players to do accomplish the feat in the past 25 years.

However, that type of effort alone isn’t why the Knicks are suddenly winning.

As evidenced by their home opener nine nights earlier, when New York blew a 21-point lead and lost to Detroit by four, Porzingis needed help and his team needed to mature and grow.

And so far, it seems they have.

Playing well enough to build a lead of as much as 69-46 early in the third quarter against the Nuggets, the Knicks turned the ball over an astonishing 12 times in the period as Denver used a 27-2 barrage to gain its first lead of the game, 77-75.

Yet rather than cave and let the game slip away despite a tough fight — as the Jets might do now, or as the Knicks might have a bit earlier in the season — New York regained control with a 28-17 spurt, to lead for good, 102-93.

And when things got a bit tenuous again, at 104-102, with just over three minutes left (following a 9-2 Denver run), the Knicks — just as they did the night before in Cleveland (after letting a 17-point fourth-quarter lead shrink to just six, before running away for a notable 19-point win) — figured out ways to make stops and one end of the floor and get buckets at the other end to avoid another disappointing debacle like New York suffered against Detroit.

Putting his club’s wins on successive nights on the heels of a 21-point win over Brooklyn on Friday night (which started the Knicks’ winning streak) in perspective, head coach Jeff Hornacek said of allowing opponents to repeatedly rally from large deficits, “I’m happy that these guys are pulling these games out, but we don’t want to make that a habit.”

He continued, “We always say, ‘It’s not gonna come right away,’ just because we won three games. We still have to continue to work on the little things in practice. We’re not there. We can still get better at a lot of things. We said, ‘This is going to be a process throughout the whole year.’ We have great effort right now with the guys. They’re listening, they’re trying, and we’re doing some things for them, that they can kind of follow how they’re doing, and I’m very happy with the way they’ve responded. At 0-3, you can [feel sorry for yourself], but I think that says something about these guys. They just kept working and I think they have the belief that we’re going to get there.”

It also helps that while Porzingis has the ability to score 30 points whenever he wants this season, he – despite his young age — has the maturity of a much older, wise veteran, more concerned with his team’s success than his own.

“I look up to the scoreboard and I’m never focused on how many points I’ve scored,” Porzingis said. “It’s all about the score… that’s my mentality, always.”

Meanwhile, in addition to the almost nightly given that Hornacek has in Porzingis’ production, other players, including several new pieces, have started to complement the Knicks’ best player by each playing well within their own varied and different roles.

Veteran point guard Jarrett Jack (with his seventh NBA team, in his 13th year in the league) — who recorded a game-high 10 assists while committing just two turnovers in 32 minutes — has quickly become a stabilizing in presence for New York’s offense and for the team’s younger players.

“He runs the team well,” Porzingis said of Jack. “He’s able to create [for himself] and run the team the right way.”

It helps also that Jack relishes his mentoring role as much as he likes to have the chemistry down with his fellow veterans.

“Somebody did it for me and I would love to be that person to do it for somebody else,” Jack said on helping the Knicks’ younger players, while adding, “I really love the game, I take it personally. I take this fraternity that we’re in personally and there are so many young dudes I see that don’t get a helping hand… so I just try to do that for others… my personal preference, being a point guard, I try to have a relationship with everybody on the team.”

Although Jack only scored six points, Porzingis was one of six Knicks who scored in double figures, including 6-foot-10, 50-pound reserve forward Kyle O’Quinn (15 points, game-highs of 12 rebounds and five blocks) — who continues to do the important grunt work for New York.

Starting small forward Tim Hardaway, Jr., who went scoreless through the first three quarters one night after leading all scorers with 34 points in Cleveland, woke up with 13 important points in the final period.

Center Enes Kanter, who has proven to be a key offseason acquisition for the Knicks, once again played a vital role in the paint, with 12 points and nine rebounds, and starting guard Courtney Lee chipped in 12 points while reserve forward Doug McDermott added 11 points in 21 minutes off the bench, making half of his six 3-point attempts.

“I think we all just kind of gelled together,” said O’Quinn. “We had a good practice after that Celtics game (New York’s third game of the season, which resulted in an embarrassing 21-point defeat in Boston).”

Kanter added, “Things are starting to click. We’re a young team… we’ve got a lot of energy… everybody knows their roles, but one thing we are [all] doing right now is just going out there and competing.”

Taking a realistic yet needed approach after Denver rallied, Jack noted, “We’d have love to walk out of here with that 20-point lead that we established in the first half, but they came back. So what are we going to do? Are we just going to put our heads down? No. Now it’s a 0-0 ballgame… [so] let’s show some fight, show some poise and be able to grind [it out].”

Doing that was made easier through some earlier growing pains at the start of the season.
Pointing to what New York seems to have learned from the loss against Detroit in subsequently pulling out solid wins over Cleveland and Denver, Lee said, “It helps us a lot. It just shows that we’re a team that’s growing, a team that’s building on something. Early on, we would have lost this game, but going through that only helped us. We learned from it.”

He added, “We know it’s a process, it’s new guys, a new system and it takes time to get chemistry. Nobody hung their heads. We continued to work, watch film and get better. Now we just need to continue to do the things that positioned us to win three games in a row, and continue this momentum.”

About the Author

Jon Wagner

Jon has been a credentialed writer with New York Sports Day since 2009, primarily covering the New York Knicks and Hofstra men's basketball. He has also occasionally covered other college basketball and New York's pro teams including the Mets, Giants, Jets, Islanders, Rangers and Cosmos (including their three most recent championship seasons). Jon is former Yahoo Sports contributor who previously covered various sports for the Queens Ledger. He's a proud alum of Hofstra University and the Connecticut School of Broadcasting (which he attended on a full scholarship). He remains convinced to this day that John Starks would have won the Knicks a championship in 1994 had Hakeem Olajuwon not blocked Starks' shot in Game 6 of the 1994 NBA Finals.

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